The Development of Contemporary Oceanic Arts, Epeli Hau’ofa.

Over the last three hundred years Westerners have deliberately degraded traditional standards of evaluation Pacific Cultures, imposing alien standards of judgment that have stymied original creativity in Pacific societies. At the tail end of the twentieth century, the University of the South Pacific embarked on a programme of original creativity aimed at the development of contemporary arts that are vibrantly and distinctively Oceanic. This paper provides an outline of the programme that attracted increasing attention from within and outside the Pacific Islands region.

It is a fact in the relationship between dominant and subordinate groups that the former impose on the latter their standards of evaluation and judgement. Concomitantly, most of the standards of the subordinate groups are denigrated and set aside. The greater the domination, the more the subordinate peoples are stripped of their sense of inherent worth.

Over the last two centuries in the histories of Oceania, imperial powers imposed on the island societies their standards of judgment on moral and ethical probity; quality of socio­ economic life; governance, aesthetic valuation and so forth. To be morally good, economically productive, and socially useful, people had to toil toward standards that were alien and outside of local control, and since the resources needed to attain those standards were lacking in the immediate environment, most Oceanic peoples could not measure up. They were often depicted (through paintings and photographs) in ways that made them look pathetic, and their striving no more than acts of futile, even ridiculous, mimicry.

Today, the main pressure that we confront is globalisation, the rules for which are set so far away that they remain beyond the reach of our influence. We’re told to learn to play on an uneven field, lest we be ”left behind.” But the resources for successful participation in globalisation are so scarce or so difficult to access that only some of us are able to negotiate our way through the field successfully, and then only as individuals. The community no longer advances as a unit. The community, which is the basic unit of our traditional cultures, is falling apart, and increasing proportions of our populations are left at the margins of society to fend for themselves.

The University of the South Pacific is the region’s leading institution for training people to participate in the globalisation process. In recent years it has focused on organisation restructuring, and streamlining operational procedures directed toward successfully harnessing our responses to the demands of global capitalism. Since the University’s inception over thirty years ago, all of its teaching departments have had external advisors, eminent scholars mostly from Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America, Canada, and the United Kingdom, who examine the department’s courses, teaching, staffing, research and publications, to make certain that the university measures up to the standards of universities in the West. The stamp of external approval and recognition based on ‘international standards,’ first imposed in the earliest years of imperialism in Oceania, is still very much alive in the postcolonial environment.

As regards cultural productivity, especially in relation to artistic production, the devaluation of local standards has had a dampening effect on creativity for a long time. This is compounded by the phenomenon of deliberate cultural preservation. Conservation efforts are directed towards salvaging what is left of traditional cultures for the sake of distinctive identity and of cultural commodification for the tourism industry. Governments and the travel and hospitality industries have deliberately inculcated the belief that tourism is necessary for the preservation of traditional culture, and authentic identity. Conservation of traditional culture as a matter of public policy has fossilised aspects of our relationship with the past, and has, through removing cultural traits from their original contexts and making them part of tourism development, rendered them meaningless outside of their new commercial ambience. State sponsored cultural committees determine what items are authentically indigenous; urge people to practice them, and not to deviate from the “set ways” of the ancestors. That these “set ways” that have actually emerged through long arid drastic processes of Christian missionary sanitisation; and colonial filtration systems, are aspects of history that have been conveniently forgotten.

In most of our regional societies the emphasis is presently given to cultural conservation and not to creative exploration. The net outcome has been endless clone reproduction and reenactments of what are believed to be practices that date back to times immemorial. Inherent in this is the idea that in these times immemorial, the items reproduced sprang up fully formed and never changed across the centuries.

But throughout all this, there have persisted practices that have resulted in the continuous though declining production of visual and performing works of stunning beauty and power; works that have nothing to do with public conservation policies or with globalisation. Impressively stenciled tapa cloths of enormous proportions, finely woven mats, basketry and string bags, intricately designed shell, feather and bone ornaments, painting on human bodies, masks and facades of sacred houses, story boards with minute details carved and painted into them, are still produced by people all over the region for sacred rituals and ceremonies that connect us to the depths of our histories and the spirits of our cultures. Recitals of oral traditions, music and chants, performances of dance and ritual actions that accompany the delivery of oratory, are integral to these ceremonies that antedate the Christian conquest of Oceania. These visual arid expressive manifestations of the spiritual essence of our living cultures will continue as long as our life crises ceremonies give meaning to our lives, and substance to our identity with our past, our present and our future.

Most of what have survived of the visual arts produced in the pre-Christian eras are those that were removed overseas, where they now grace museums, galleries .and private collections in Europe, the Americas and Australasia. These works of great beauty and power are inaccessible to most of us unless we read or see photographs of them in books on Oceanic arts. Nevertheless, these works exist and should become sources of creative inspirations to our artists today.

In the countries of the USP region, contemporary art has been largely Western, practised by white expatriates or by local painters raised in the Western traditions. Some have been graduates of schools of fine arts in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. There is little distinctively Oceanic about their creations, despite the use of local materials, or landscapes and other subject matters that are local. The same is true of other visual arts.

With the ready availability of television, video, cinema and the radio, and ever growing numbers of night clubs and karaoke bars, indigenous music and dance, which were already in decline before the arrival of the mass media, are increasingly being abandoned by the younger generations, who have taken to the latest music and dance fads from the USA and the Caribbean.

This was the state of affairs when in early 1997 the USP established the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture, appointed me as director, another person as programme assistant and a part time cleaner. The three of us were the Centre. A small building previously occupied by married students, and a very modest budget, were also provided. There was no set programme; and no directives were given. I had complete freedom to do whatever was necessary to get the Centre going. I will deal with the importance of these mundane details as this address progresses. Having ample time and freedom on, my hands, I started developing ideas about objectives to be pursued and appropriate programmes to be implemented.

The first objective was the development of contemporary visual and performing arts that are distinctly Oceanic. This means that we have to go to our traditions and histories, as well as to our everchanging contemporary social and cultural environments, for inspirations to create images, sounds and movements that speak to us, and speak of us, in our place and our times.

Second, the creative processes unleashed must reflect fundamental principles of our societies, in particular reciprocity, cooperation, openness to community (in terms of both participation and viewing) and transmission of skills through observation and participation rather than through formal instruction.

Third, we must develop our own criteria for assessing the aesthetic worth and value of our creations. We must first be satisfied with what we are doing, according to our own standards, before we present them. As stated in our corporate plan, we must “learn from the great and wonderful products of human imagination and ingenuity the world over, but the cultural achievements of our own histories will be our most important models, points of reference, and sources of inspiration.”

Fourth, in order to avoid the pitfalls of repetitiveness and mimicry characteristic of our arts and culture today, the Centre will always focus on experiment and innovation.

Fifth, we produce visual and performing arts that are regional, transcending our insularity and our national and ethnic diversity. To date, when people talk of Oceanic arts, they refer to the arts of different countries or cultural groups within the particular geographic space defined as Oceania. Our Centre is called Oceania deliberately to signify its regional nature and aspirations. And one of our main objectives is to produce for the first time, contemporary arts that all of us in Oceania would consider ours and be recognised by others as such. This is putting into practice what I have been advocating over the last decade, a regional Oceanic identity grounded in our common heritage of a large swathe of the Pacific Ocean.

The resources made available by the University to the Centre at the outset have shaped its programmes, and its progress toward attaining its ambitious objectives. The Centre was and is not a teaching arm of the USP. Its original bare-bones staffing comprising a director and a programme assistant, and a very modest budget, precluded its development into a department or school of fine arts. As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise.

Teaching degree and diploma courses would have entailed recruiting teaching staff from abroad, probably most from Australia and New Zealand. Courses would have been written to conform with “international standards,” with textbooks based on Western art history, aesthetic perception, and reasoning. Ulli and Georgina Beier wrote of the negative effects of art schools in colonial India and Africa where the British “introduced European methods of learning and seeing, Anatomy, perspective, life drawing and heavy emphasis on European Art History from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. Students with strong personalities and original creative talents often took years to liberate themselves. They had to go back to re­discover their traditional wall paintings or sand paintings, their ancient calligraphy or folk art in order to overcome the process of alienation they had been subjected to. A conventional European degree course in fine arts can do more harm than good” (Beier and Beier, 1996). Formal teaching of visual and performing arts was something that the Centre was avoiding, as a matter of choice. The lack of resources to mount such a programme put a seal on it.

What we decided to do was to act as a facilitator. We would provide space, material and mentoring to aspiring creative minds who need opportunity and facilities to develop their talents. Aspiring painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers would be brought to the Centre and be imbued with the ideas of developing our own distinctive arts. Most of the enrolled university students were not interested because they had entered the university with the aim of ultimately becoming cogs in the global machine. Regional governments would not provide scholarships for the arts. However, the first person interested in our painting programme was a university student from the Solomon’ Islands, who, because he could not obtain a scholarship in fine arts from his government, decided to take up legal studies.

Another student, originally from Tonga, who was on his final semester toward completing a degree majoring in economics, came to the Centre, and promptly abandoned his studies to become a full-time artist. He recently won a Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award, in a competition involving artists from 56 Commonwealth countries.

In music, a young man who heard about what the new Centre was doing, came and declared he was on a mission to revolutionise Fijian music. The Centre provided him with artist-in-residence appointments until he produced the kind of music that is now beginning to lead contemporary Fijian music into an exciting new direction.

Another university student, a Samoan, showed promising potential to become a choreographer. The Oceania Centre nurtured the development of his talent to the extent that he is now arguably the leading choreographer of contemporary Oceanic dance in the USP region.

In its early days the Centre also brought in one of Fiji’s finest traditional carvers, and provided him with artist’-in-residence appointments to give him ample leeway to extend his talent into more creative directions. He is now carving at the Centre the most exciting and monumental pieces of work done in Fiji for a very long time.

Finally, there was a young man who was a self taught unemployed welder, who had interest in doing creative work. The Centre provided him with short-term artist-in-residence appointments to develop his talents. He is now producing the only large scale metal sculptures in Fiji, and is on the Centre staff as technical assistant.

Even the cleaner lady, who showed an inclination for weaving mats, was helped by an expert weaver hired by the Centre, to develop her talent. She has produced some very fine mats for the Centre collection. We encourage everyone connected to the Centre to discover and develop their creative talents.

These are the kinds of people on whom the Oceania Centre depends to carry out its programmes. They are all local and regional people, without any formal training in the arts. Because the Centre focuses on developing distinctive contemporary arts new to the region, it has to depend on artists who work full-time on their arts. We found out that we could not rely on those who work in full-time paid employment, and who consider art as a hobby. The Centre therefore accepted talented unemployed young people and helped them to become the new visual and performing artists of Oceania. Most of them are school dropouts from poor families. They joined the Centre when they heard that the opportunities we provided were free of charge.

At the outset the Centre had to develop everything it set out to do, with very limited financial resources. The young trainee painters it recruited came from poor families and could not afford to pay any fees. Neither could they afford materials, let alone their own studio at home. From its meagre resources the Centre even provided them with weekly travel allowances. They are not treated as students who come for a certain period of training and then leave. The Centre deliberately goes out to create a community of artists that it nurtures. People are told at the beginning that the Centre is not a ‘school’ but a home for the arts. They can stay as long as they want. If they are from other countries of the region and have to return home eventually, the Centre will maintain links with them, aiming to create a ‘family’ network of artists through but the region.

As mentioned previously, the University provided a small building to house the newly created Centre in 1997. Available funds enabled only limited extension of the existing premises, by addition of areas with good floors and roofs but no walls. The small size and openness of the space oblige people to work closely with and in sight of each other. It also means that people who walk or drive by can see what is happening. Passersby can pause to see dancers, painters, sculptors and musicians all working or performing in the same space. And because of the absence of an art gallery, all the Centre’s exhibitions are held in the same open space, for everyone to view. People are able to see both the processes of creation and the final outcome, in the same space. It is very important in building a public for the arts; that the process of creation is open to viewing.

What has actually developed is not only a community of artists, but also a space that reflects the “typical” community life in Oceania – everything is open, with hardly any privacy. And as in a real village community; everyone influences and learns from everyone else. There is also a great deal of sharing. Painters, dancers and musicians interact with and help each other, developing in the process a kind of integrated arts, something that is much talked about but rarely realised.

Not long ago, while I was in New Zealand I went to the opening of a school of creative and performing arts. The school was contained in a large edifice. As one went through the building, one was struck by the silence that pervaded the area. The whole place seemed soundproof. All activities were held behind closed doors. One heard music or saw performances only when one opened the doors.

This was the opposite of what is happening at the Oceania Centre. In the one, which represents Western arts, the processes of creation, or rehearsals, are private and individualised (as in the artist’s studio). In the other, representing Oceania, all processes are open, shared. This is a statement of fact, not of judgement.

The very generously endowed Jean-Marie Tjibaou Centre in New Caledonia is building up a collection of Pacific arts it buys from artists who live outside New Caledonia. Representatives of the Tjibaou Centre are able to go outside New Caledonia and buy expensive works for their collection. The Oceania Centre, on the other hand, is not in a position to buy art works from elsewhere. The Centre has a growing collection, virtually all of which are works by its own artists, and almost all of it produced at the Centre. Both Tjibaou and Oceania Centres have Pacific art collections. In the former, the collection is of works by artists living in different parts of the region, working independently of each other. In the latter, the collection is of works by a group of artists from different parts of the region nurtured by the Oceania Centre, and working together at the same place, and through close daily interactions mutually influencing each other’s work. This is a process that could lead to the emergence of truly regional Oceanic arts.

I close this address by reiterating a point I have made earlier. I firmly believe that it is in the field of cultural creativity that we are capable of producing our most original and best contributions to life in general, works that equal or surpass in quality those produced anywhere else. We can excel in other fields: modern economics, science, technology, scholarship, whatever. But the origins of these are external to our cultures, and so is their ultimate control. In them we enter other people’s fields, other people’s rules, other people’s control. But we do not have to always play in other people’s fields. In cultural creativity we can carve out our own spaces, in which we set the rules, the standards that are ours, fashioned to suit our circumstances, and to give us the necessary freedom to act in order to bring out the best in us. The realisation of this potential can unleash an enormous creative energy that could help to transform and reshape the face of contemporary Oceania in our own image.


1) Papua New Guinea, which is not part of the USP -region; is an exception to my comments. Since the late 1960s there has been a lively, contemporary visual arts scene in that country.


Beier, Ulli and Georgina Beier (1996) Culture -and Identity in Oceania. Suva: University of the

South Pacific.

(Received for Publication: June 7, 2004)

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